PlayBox is Box of Trick’s year-long writer-on-attachment programme with the company offering residencies and support to three early-career North West playwrights. This year’s takeover featured Keisha Thompson, Nana-Kofi Kufuor and Billie Collins, and it’s their work that I went along to see.
As these were not just rehearsed readings but also works-in-development what follows are definitely not reviews. I’ve kept my descriptions and thoughts relatively brief in recognition of the fact that the shows will inevitably evolve further. Hopefully what comes across is my enthusiasm for all three pieces of writing which, even at this stage, are already well-crafted, ambitious and engaging.
Both student Reece and Gillian, his teacher, are black, and Kufuor’s play explores the suffocating pressures they find themselves under from the demands and prejudices of wider society and white privilege, as well as considering the expectations black people can place on each other.
It’s a tough watch at times. Language is weaponized, as Gillian and Reece struggle to seize control of the situation or simply lash out at one another. Power moves back and forward between them, and Kufuor cleverly plays with our sympathies. There’s humour too, which at times can get vicious, although the gasps and exclamations of recognition from audience members suggest it is being used effectively.
Reese forces Gillian to take part in role-playing, where together they re-enact scenarios of his choosing to demonstrate points that he is making. It might sound contrived, but on the whole, it works, serving to shift the ‘action’ out of the classroom situation in order to highlight experiences that have shaped both teacher and student over the years – with family, at university or in work.
Due to the nature of the staging, the play’s more physical/visual elements were absent but (as described) they seem valuable and impactful counterbalances to the spoken dialogue. It was also difficult to judge, in the rehearsed reading format, how clearly defined both Gillian and Reece are, and that will be critical in ensuring that as characters they don’t collapse under the weight of the discussions they are engaged in.
There is so much food for thought in this play, so much to digest, that it felt (and I mean this as a compliment) as if it must have been longer than it actually was. For all its intensity, its energy rarely falters, even managing to find space near the end for two blazing monologues about being Black that hit home with ferocious precision.
Keisha Thompson chose to share an excerpt from her play The Bell Curves rather than have it performed in its entirety. Partly this was to avoid giving away the ending but also, as she explained in an introduction, she had some quite specific ideas about how the play would be staged and these couldn’t be replicated in the rehearsed reading format.
Through the stories of four young Manchester-based women, Thompson investigates some of the implications of the gene-manipulation technology CRISPR-Cas 9. Asking what impacts a simple yet powerful tool to remove, add or alter sections of the DNA sequence could have on our everyday lives, the play also tests out some of the ethical questions involved in this brave new world.
Bursting with ideas, The Bell Curves considers not only how such technology could prevent illness but also how it might even mitigate against the inherited effects of historical trauma. Playing around with the concept of ‘cut and paste’, the piece dissects parallels with identity and intersectionality before chipping away at the ‘fourth wall’ and allowing characters to apparently seize control of the script to chop and change the play’s focus and direction.
I think a challenge going forward will be to fine-tune how some of the scientific theory and big ideas woven into the play are conveyed to ensure that is done in a way that feels consistent with the feel of the characters and the narrative flow.
This lively and well=executed ensemble piece is a change in direction for Thompson, who is mainly known for her solo work. Her collection of characters are wonderfully drawn, especially Nana the “queer black woman from Ardwick” who is also a smart and curious young scientist pushing at boundaries. Nana’s insecure partner, her plain-speaking sister and an all-business fellow scientist add to the entertaining (and insightful) mix.
Thompson demonstrates she knows how to leave an audience wanting more. Stopping the sharing of her new work at the point when one of the characters appears to be taking a pair of scissors to it, is certainly a high-concept cliffhanger. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
To be honest, at the tail end of a busy afternoon, on learning Billie Collins’ Too Much World At Once was over 2 hours in length, I entered the theatre with some trepidation. However, any worries I had soon vanished.
Set in a very near future, when a “sort-of end of the world” is approaching, the dramatic action shifts back and forth between a fractured family somewhere in England and a young woman scientist based in the British Antarctic Survey research station on Bird Island off South Georgia.
Collins links together themes of home, migration and climate emergency to tell a story that feels wide in scope, and sometimes epic in its reach. Yet despite that focus on what might seem ‘heavy’ topics, it’s done in a way that feels as light as the feathers that suddenly sprout from a 15-year-old boy, but that’s another story.
Some of the writing is just beautiful – poetic and clipped – when that young man takes flight, his wings are “black, but flash blue and green, iridescent in the light“.
“The world will not be kind to us because we haven’t given it reason to“, says someone, and there’s a well-evoked sense of creeping tension as strange things happen, and tipping points are reached. Occasional Greek chorus style interventions add emphasis to events.
While the climate emergency rages away unchecked, two teenage boys Noble and Ellis have more mundane matters to deal with, such as problems at school and the struggles of adolescence. Collins creates a cast of very likeable characters (Noble’s worldly-wise mother Fiona is a particular joy), and they solidly anchor the piece, allowing the writing to imaginatively take off in less earthbound directions.
With minimal fuss, and admirable skill Too Much World At Once draws in elements from genres as diverse of disaster movies, Phillip Ridley-esque fantasy and heart-warming domestic drama to create something that feels breathtakingly expansive but also intimate and touchingly real.
PlayBox Takeover took place on 18 January 2020.
Box of Tricks.
Image from left to right – Billie Collins, Keisha Thompson, Nana-Kofi Kufuor